For Decades, Kobe Bryant Defined the Los Angeles Lakers. He Shaped Their Future, Too.
The Lakers star charted a path as an athlete and in retirement that others in the league, including the new face of the Lakers franchise, LeBron James, have looked to as an example.
The last time Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant played an N.B.A. game, he went out shooting. It was Apr.13, 2016, and Bryant scored 60 points, much to the delight of the Staples Center crowd, which included the actor Jack Nicholson and the rapper Snoop Dogg. He was gunning from a distance without a conscience, showing little of the wear and tear that nearly 60,000 professional basketball minutes had put on him.
It was the kind of performance that had become rare for Bryant as he transitioned from being one of the most dynamic players in the history of basketball to an elder statesman ready to pass the torch to the next generation. His resume, with one Most Valuable Player Award, five N.B.A. championships and 18 All-Star selections, is among the most impressive in league history.
Bryant, who retired after that 2016 game, died Sunday in a helicopter crash near Calabasas, Calif., northwest of Los Angeles, along with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others. The news sent shock waves through the basketball world on a day when more than half of the league’s 30 teams were scheduled to play.
Shortly after the news broke, it was announced that Nets guard Kyrie Irving, who had been close with Bryant, would be out for his team’s Sunday game against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Before a game between the Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets, a public address announcer informed the crowd of Bryant’s death and called for a moment of silence. After listing several of Bryant’s many N.B.A. accomplishments, the announcer ended his tribute with “Rest in peace, Mamba,” a reference to Bryant’s nickname.
N.B.A. teams, such as the Spurs and Raptors playing in San Antonio, and the Celtics and Pelicans playing in New Orleans, purposely took 24-second shot clock violations at the start of their games in honor of Bryant, who had played under the jersey Nos. 8 and 24. Both have been retired and hang in the rafters at the Lakers’ Staples Center arena, which hosted the Grammy Awards on Sunday. The musician Lizzo dedicated a performance at the awards show to the former player, and fans quickly gathered outside the arena that evening, chanting, “Thank you, Kobe.”
Many players in Sunday night’s N.B.A. games also wore shoes that honored Bryant and his daughter.
The Lakers returned to Los Angeles on Sunday after an extended road trip. Video from the NBC affiliate in Los Angeles appeared to show Lakers forward LeBron James and other teammates embracing and in tears after they exited the team’s plane.
Four seasons after Bryant’s retirement, the Lakers have become title contenders again after signing James in 2018 and trading for forward Anthony Davis before this season. James, who played with Bryant on the 2008 men’s United States Olympic team, passed Bryant for the third spot on the N.B.A. career scoring list in a game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday. Bryant posted a message to Twitter congratulating James.
It’s easy to draw a straight line from the New Age Lakers, led by James, to the team that Bryant left behind. Without Bryant, there likely would have been no James in Los Angeles. Many were critical of the high-dollar contract offered to Bryant near the end of his career, which hamstrung the Lakers from making roster choices that would have propelled the team to a post-Kobe era. However, Bryant’s presence allowed the franchise to retain its historical prestige, even while putting the team temporarily in the N.B.A.’s wilderness.
N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement on Sunday that Bryant had been “one of the most extraordinary players in the history of our game.”
“For 20 seasons, Kobe showed us what is possible when remarkable talent blends with an absolute devotion to winning,” Silver said. “But he will be remembered most for inspiring people around the world to pick up a basketball and compete to the very best of their ability.”
Few players saw Bryant’s impact on the Lakers the way Shaquille O’Neal did. O’Neal, now a TNT analyst, formed a Lakers duo with Bryant that was widely acknowledged as one of the top tandems in basketball history.
O’Neal said in a message posted on Twitter that there were “no words to express the pain” he was going through over losing Bryant and Bryant’s daughter, and that he loved Bryant and would miss him. “My condolences goes out to the Bryant family and the families of the other passengers on board,” he wrote.
Other Lakers greats expressed their admiration as well. Magic Johnson, arguably the only player who matches Bryant in contributions to the franchise, posted, “Laker Nation, the game of basketball & our city, will never be the same without Kobe.” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar appeared in a Twitter video wearing a purple Lakers sweatshirt and wrote: “Most people will remember Kobe as the magnificent athlete who inspired a whole generation of basketball players. But I will always remember him as a man who was much more than an athlete.”
During his playing career, Bryant began experimenting with endeavors outside of basketball that he would channel his competitiveness into after retirement. He co-founded an investment firm, Bryant Stibel & Co., that reportedly now manages more than $2 billion. He also collaborated with Spike Lee on the 2009 documentary “Kobe Doin’ Work.”
When Bryant announced his retirement in 2015, he did so not through a statement or an interview, but in a poem titled “Dear Basketball.” It began: “From the moment I started rolling my dad’s tube socks; And shooting imaginary game-winning shots; In the Great Western Forum; I knew one thing was real: I fell in love with you.”
Two years later, Bryant turned “Dear Basketball” into an animated short film, which won an Academy Award.
Former President Barack H. Obama referred to Bryant’s career reinvention in a statement on Sunday. “Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act,” he said.
During his Oscar acceptance speech, Bryant said: “As basketball players we’re supposed to shut up and dribble. I’m glad we do a little bit more than that.” It was a reference to comments made by the Fox News conservative pundit Laura Ingraham, who had denounced basketball players, including James, for criticizing President Trump.
James was already a Laker — but Bryant’s path provides a sort of blueprint for future athletes. And now the franchise that Bryant defined is in the hands of James.
It is perhaps appropriate. Bryant had filled the shoes of Lakers before, such as those of Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson as a young guard, and made his own way. But there was one shadow that stood out above all.
Throughout Bryant’s career, he was steadily linked to Michael Jordan as an apparent heir to the basketball throne. Their games were eerily similar, and both were faces of the league in their primes, often referred to as the unequivocal best players in the league. Bryant even once tried to engineer a trade to the Chicago Bulls, where Jordan made his name.
On Sunday, Jordan, now the owner of the Charlotte Hornets, said in a statement that he was in shock over the deaths of Bryant and his daughter.
“Words can’t describe the pain I’m feeling,” he said. “I loved Kobe — he was like a little brother to me. We used to talk often and I will miss those conversations very much.”